This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Meenal Gupta. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Everything Wrong With The Fourth Pillar Of Indian Democracy

The more people react (even negatively) to your post on a platform like Facebook or Twitter, the more they will show your post to your audience. A regular Facebook post that is not liked, commented on or reacted to by anyone will be shown to a much lower percentage of your network, and that too only those people who are more likely to react. With an extreme or shocking post, the opposite is true.

Is this kind of media doing justice to democracy? My short answer would be “No”. The long answer includes the fact that misinformation abounds on social media. Few bother to check the sources of information, and even if someone disproves something, they are then put under suspicion of being biased. However, can things change? Newspapers, radio, and TV have also published false information. The only difference being that they can be sued for doing so.

On the plus side, social media allows a cause to go viral and force change to happen.

Media has four basic responsibilities as the fourth pillar of democracy: It should tell the truth. It should be unbiased. It should not act to spread propaganda. It should strive towards the moral conditioning of the masses. And the current situation? It fails in every aspect.

Nowadays, many forms of media tell half the truth, and even outright lies. The authenticity of the news is no more guaranteed. The JNU row was an example of how media houses sold lies or half truths. Almost every media group has ideological or political biases. In many cases they are owned by the heads of political parties. If you observe a news programme for even a few minutes you will get to know the political inclination of the channel. These media outlets serve us their prejudice and spread propaganda. We begin to see media trials, because these channels have begun to see themselves as superior to judiciary. In the name of moral policing, every now and then opinion building is served. The average viewer is bombarded with opinion polls and heavily biased talk shows.

Firstly, social algorithms allow fake news stories from untrustworthy sources to spread like wildfire. Many of us just assume that there is a modicum of truth in advertising. We expect this from commercials, but not from politicians and political parties. Occasionally, a political actor gets punished for betraying the public’s trust through their misinformation campaigns. But in the United States “political speech” is completely free from reasonable public oversight, and in most other countries the media organisations and public offices watching politicians are legally constrained, poorly financed, or themselves untrustworthy. Research demonstrates that during the campaigns for Brexit and the US presidency, large volumes of fake news stories, false factoids, and absurd claims were passed over social media networks, often by Twitter’s highly automated accounts and Facebook’s algorithms.

Second, social media algorithms provide a very real structure to what political scientists often call “elective affinity” or “selective exposure”. When offered the choice of who to spend time with or which organisations to trust, we prefer to strengthen our ties to the people and organisations we already know and like. When offered a choice of news stories, we prefer to read about the issues we already care about, from the pundits and news outlets we’ve enjoyed in the past. Random exposure to content is gone from our diets of news and information. The problem is not that we have constructed our own community silos, humans will always do that. The problem is that media networks take away the random exposure to new, high-quality information. This is not a technological problem. We are social beings and so we will naturally look for ways to socialise, and we will use technology to socialise with each other. But technology could be part of the solution. A not-so-radical redesign might occasionally expose us to new sources of information, or warn us when our own social networks are getting too bounded.

The third problem is that technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have been given a “moral pass” on the obligations we hold journalists and civil society groups to. Driven by sensationalism and TRP, media house have taken a corporate turn. It’s courtsey of the media house that Kanhaiya kumar and Hardik Patel became overnight celebrities. TRP-generating news is deliberately shown in loops, while more worthy news gets neglected. That’s selective coverage. For example, Assam’s floods did not got the required coverage as at that time Pratyusha’s suicide was telecast for TRP.

Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to the people in general that so much time and resources are spent on such things, and consciously the terrible economic problems, social issues and censored controversies remain unaddressed? Media houses have stooped so low that they are willing to compromise national security and secrecy. In the name of censorship, the government is trying to restrict the flow of information. And the media is bound to resist that. Episodes like blackening the screen or banning a channel have popped up. The Nirbhaya case of 2012 is an example where media’s constructive role was able to generate people’s involvement in the radical reform the country required. But why weren’t innumerable other cases addressed in the same way?

The current media/press is completely a business entity. Their interests towards public welfare is dubious. They can manipulate the facts as they want. They assume nobody will question them, not even the judiciary. They can motivate, influence, and impact all of the pillars of democracy.

Here’s another thing: Bad news sells. They’re called the fourth pillar of democracy because they empower people with information. Especially the information that will make us vote. Of course, when there is press censorship, the news will never be truthful. It will always be one sided. But do we realize its 2018? You cannot curb information, it will find its way out. People in power who are corrupt will be called out. Corruption will become more difficult to accomplish, and will have to be done more covertly. When exposed, corrupt and powerful people will be more likely to face consequences. If the media function without earning bread through ill practices, that’s true press freedom. However, it’s only when those who own the media sources allow it. You can legally have press freedom, but if media is consolidated to the point where very few people control most of the sources, that freedom becomes an illusion. The pros are obvious, to provide a healthy counter balance to the wrath of unchecked power. But those pros assume the press is not in and of itself enthralled in the wrath of its own powers. Freedom of any kind cannot exist without its paradox. A paradox too-loosely applied to the press, and in desperate need of readjustment.

To wit, CNN, as a leading news-centric channel, has literally become smut television, of endless talking-heads without verifiable or meaningful merit endlessly regurgitating their opinions as if it were news. Laced in, supported by, and no doubt ruled by companies promoting endless advertising of toe-nail fungus medicine, and the like. Other news channels follow the same revenue optimisation techniques to compete, instead of reporting news as it happens, when it happens. Indeed, news production has lost its collective mind and merit by trying to be the counter-balance to our law-makers.

Reporters are deemed to have merit, and put on a pedestal, only when their likes or shares on social media reach a certain threshold. This rat-race for populism is based on an agenda quite different from the integrity of the news that matters. Last but not least, as I realized in my own experience with the national (and international) press, with the advent of the internet as its accelerant, the focal point of the press has turned into fast short-form hits, with the shallow description and coverage of consequential events disconnected from a plausible relationship to cause. The press has on the whole become a rebel without a cause.

So yes, I do think the press needs to be held accountable in order to portray, suitably, our elected officials. And we must ensure the press is not as flawed as the US presidency. We have plenty of instruments in our democratic process to hold our media to account. And if not, we better reinvent our constitution which defines and stipulates those controls. The press must be able to speak its mind, like all of us. And let the merit of their wisdom define whether they should be taken serious or not. They have sunken very low, and I am glad they are being challenged. As we all should be.

I have lost my confidence in the press, and I speak with many leaders in their respective line of work who feel exactly like I do.

Let me paraphrase former FBI director James Comey; just because you are talking about something (frequently) doesn’t mean you know what you are talking about. Let us not forget how the press turned Michael Jackson into a villain, we now know he clearly was not.

You must be to comment.
  1. Md Shadan Altmash

    All the best for upcoming blogposts Meenal

  2. Prabhash Shukla

    Beautifully described the current condition of youth & their beloved social media.

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